KEC International, the flagship company of RPG Group, is using a mix of technology and ingenuity as it gets back to work.
For a traditional “brick and mortar” company like KEC International, the RPG Group flagship, the coronavirus outbreak has been a revelation--work from home can be an option for a sizable part of its staff.
The company, a major in EPC (engineering, procurement and construction), expects several of its “office staff” to continue working from home even after the lockdown ends on May 18.
"We as a brick and mortar company never thought work from home is possible. But that will change," Managing Director Vimal Kejriwal told Moneycontrol.
Like the rest of the industry, the company had closed its offices, factories and project sites across the country when the lockdown kicked in on March 25.
With some of the restrictions now relaxed, the company has reopened five manufacturing units and much of its project work has also begun. KEC International executes projects in sectors such as railways and power.
"Even as the offices open in phases, and all the executives are allowed to get back, some will continue to work from home. We at RPG are discussing a policy change on how to do it for the long term," said Kejriwal. Details, including on compensation and staff rotation, were being worked out, he said.
"Work from home will be a permanent fixture now, especially for a city like Mumbai where commute is long and tedious," said the MD, adding it saved time.
New norms and use of tech
The government in April released guidelines for social distancing and hygiene at work places. That is a difficult, especially social distancing, to implement on factory floors and project sites.
KEC International is using a mix of technology and ingenuity. "Much of the equipment used in the facility is big enough to automatically ensure social distancing. And we use artificial intelligence (AI) to keep a track of people’s movement," Kejriwal said.
AI uses cameras installed in a unit to send alerts if employees don't keep a minimum distance of six feet or are not wearing masks. The technology was recently highlighted by RPG Group Chairman Harsh Goenka in the following tweet:
— Harsh Goenka (@hvgoenka) May 6, 2020
On sites, KEC International has appointed Swasth Prahri, or COVID Marshals, to ensure guidelines are followed.
"Every one in 10 workers has been appointed as a supervisor. He doesn't have any other work but to ensure that social distancing and other guidelines are followed," said Kejriwal. This is important at a project site, where work is linear and people keep moving.
Interestingly, COVID-19 has also changed some practices.
For instance, many of the company's international clients now inspect finished products digitally as they are unable to travel.
"Indian clients still insist on physical inspection, which means a lot of material is still lying around," said Kejriwal. He added that the government should ask public sector units to shift to digital inspection. Much of KEC International's Indian clientele comprises public sector units.
Availability of labour, however, is a problem.
From about 30,000 people who used to work at its sites and factories before the outbreak, the number is down to about 17,000.
The challenge was that the local administration in some places was asking labourers to leave for hometowns after train services resumed though they were willing to stay back and work, Kejriwal said.
In recent days, thousands of labourers have boarded special trains to head home from cities and industrial hubs where they were employed as lockdown brought economic activity to a standstill.
Another problem is the availability of drivers. On many sites, trucks were available but no drivers. "The government should allow drivers to come back to work. Many of them are now willing to," Kejriwal said.
No material impact
With an order book of Rs 23,000 crore, which includes works where it has been shortlisted at the L1 bidder, KEC International has managed to limit some of the damage caused by the coronavirus disruptions.
"If the restrictions are further eased and things normalise by the end of May, we don't expect a material impact," said Kejriwal. Though he accepted that new orders, and execution of some of the present ones, could get delayed, "we have the comfort of a large order book," he said.Also bringing comfort is international business spread across 35 countries. Nearly half of KEC's revenues come from international operations. "Unlike in India, the government in most of these countries had allowed project work to continue," said the MD.